Where Did It All Go Wrong for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IJuly 5, 2018

FILE - In this June 8, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James walks to the bench during the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland. Two people familiar with the decision say James has told the Cavaliers he is declining his $35.6 million contract option for next season and is a free agent. James' representatives told the Cavs on Friday, June 29, 2018, said the people who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team is not publicly commenting on moves ahead of free agency opening Sunday. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Did Kyrie Irving see this train coming down the tracks, or was he the one driving it?

Irving's surprising midsummer trade demands in 2017 were rife with issues surrounding the shadow cast by LeBron James. Midday Sunday, less than a year after the All-Star point guard forced his way to a storied franchise in Boston, James announced his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers have gone from NBA champions to question marks over the span of two roller-coaster seasons.

While the Cavaliers were one of just three teams to have any communication with James during his free-agency period, reports that followed his announcement suggest it was not much of a decision at all. The press release was simply waiting for James' green light. He had a three-slide Instagram story ready to thank Northeast Ohio in the wake of the news.

When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, it was clear he was headed for greener pastures. In the 2014 Sports Illustrated essay that marked his return to Cleveland, James admitted as much, saying he was on a championship-seeking mission. He reaffirmed these beliefs during the 2018 NBA Finals when he said, "My first stint here, I just didn't have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA."

In his return to Cleveland, James reached the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons, despite an imperfect cast of teammates. He could arguably keep competing for titles more easily in Cleveland than in L.A., considering the Western Conference is stacked and his teammates will be young and inexperienced. But that's irrelevant now, as James' desire for a partnership with Magic Johnson and the Lakers won out over staying home or forcing his way to a more talented team, like the Houston Rockets or Philadelphia 76ers.

So if it wasn't about a ready-made roster in need of a final piece, or finishing out his career just miles away from Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, what was it about? And where did it all go wrong for a player who said Cleveland would be his final stop?

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Was it the firing of David Griffin?

A year after winning the 2016 title, then-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin attempted to procure Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in a deal that would have sent Kevin Love to the Denver Nuggets.

According to recent reports from ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, the Cavaliers would have been willing to include a first-round draft pick in the deal, had James been willing to commit to playing in Cleveland beyond 2017-18. When James wouldn't commit, the Cavs withdrew the first-round pick and George was sent to Oklahoma City.

Griff was relieved of his duties shortly thereafter, and the team went without a general manager during the NBA draft, the start of free agency and summer league. Irving reportedly sought someone with whom to discuss his unhappiness, but it was not be until a mid-summer meeting with Dan Gilbert that his trade demands became publicly known.

By this point, the relationship with Irving was so fractured that the guard, according to Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon, was willing to undergo knee surgery and sit out the season if he were not granted his wish to be traded out of Cleveland. 

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

        

Was it the Kyrie Irving trade?

As new GM Koby Altman was introduced to the media in late July, the then-34-year-old referred to the Irving situation as "fluid," offering little else in the way of color. Under a month later, Irving was dealt to the conference rival Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a first-round pick.

The Cavs went to battle last season with Thomas rehabilitating his injured hip, Crowder playing out of position and Dwyane Wade as a late addition to the roster, following a buyout from the Chicago Bulls. Wade's was met with a lukewarm response from teammates, as James' longtime friend initially unseated JR Smith as the team's starting shooting guard. With Irving in Boston and Thomas unable to play until January, the Cavs turned to Derrick Rose in the hopes of the former MVP rebounding from a subpar season in New York.

What they received instead was a Rose who could not stay healthy, leading to a stretch during the season in which the veteran guard left the team and contemplated no longer playing basketball at all. Unheard of as Rose's sabbatical was, it is now but a footnote in the Cavaliers' 2017-18 season—one that Kevin Love eventually referred to as "four or five seasons" wrapped up into one.

The Cavaliers' inability to get much back for Irving was one of many dominoes that found Cleveland dealing with a cascade of on- and off-court drama, ultimately leading to its present-day makeup as a veteran-heavy franchise in the luxury tax with little in the way of high-ceiling, young talent.

          

Was it the general dysfunction?

To make room for Wade prior to the season, the Cavs were forced to part ways with locker-room all-star Richard Jefferson. When Jefferson returned to Cleveland for the first time as a member of the Denver Nuggets, he was asked to address a series of off-court issues that swirled throughout Cleveland to that point.

"I guess I jumped ship right in time," Jefferson joked told reporters. "Some places thrive with a little dysfunction. It's just a part of the culture."

That dysfunction snowballed throughout the entire season, as a two-game stretch when Love was unable to play prompted an air-it-out team meeting. Love later revealed that his absence was due to treatment for a panic attack. After a series of losses midway through the season led to an increase in finger-pointing, the Cavaliers blew up the toxicity by sending Thomas, Crowder, Rose and Wade (along with Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert) to different teams. In return, the Cavs got younger but much less experienced.

In March, Smith—whom James loudly supported during his contract negotiations a year earlier—was suspended one game for throwing soup at assistant coach Damon Jones. Then, newly acquired shooting guard Rodney Hood refused to play in a blowout victory over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd

And most famously, it was (again) Smith, who generated the lasting image from the NBA Finals: James' arms outstretched with a look of utter disbelief on his face, when Smith pulled down an offensive rebound late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and nearly dribbled out the clock rather than facilitating a scoring opportunity against the Golden State Warriors.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 31:  JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles in the closing seconds of regulation as LeBron James #23 attempts direct the offense against the Golden State Warriors  in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 31, 2018
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

"In order to win, you've got to have talent, but you've got to be very cerebral, too," James said prior to Game 4 of the Finals. "Listen, we're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?"

          

Was L.A. the plan all along?

In Cleveland, James was the sun around which all decisions revolved. The team planned in-season trips to Napa Valley to cater to James' love for wine. His personal trainer, Mike Mancias, and personal biochemist, Donnie Raimon, were part of the mix. James' friend, Steph Floss, is the Cavaliers' in-arena DJ. His longtime friend, Randy Mims, was on the team's logistics detail. James' former teammate, Damon Jones, elevated himself from D-League shooting coach to an NBA on-bench assistant in four quick years.

Nevertheless, James is heading to a storied franchise that, according to reports, he believes has the willingness and ability to build a contender and topple the vaunted Golden State Warriors. Some of James' security blankets—Mancias and Raimon, for example—will be in his next chapter too, but the rest of them may not.

Josh Edelson/Associated Press

For all of Cleveland's Midwest charm, it isn't Los Angeles. And for all of the Cavaliers' willingness to spend since James returned in 2014, it's the Lakers who have cap space to add at least one more max contract. And sadly for Ohio and Florida, for all of the business acumen of owner Dan Gilbert and the flamboyant confidence of Pat Riley, neither man is Magic Johnson.

Here's the proof: James' four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers is the longest commitment he's given any team since 2010, when he navigated the sign-and-trade of a six-year contract with the Miami Heat. His multiple deals with Cleveland came with much less commitment.

Before leaving for the Heat, James famously left two years and $20 million on the table, taking three guaranteed years versus the offered five to ensure a larger payout in Year 4. In returning to Cleveland, James strung together a series of short-term deals that allowed him to take advantage of the spiking salary cap in 2016, when he locked in for three years and $100 million.

          

Was there anything left to prove in Cleveland?

James' 2014 essay is bound to be the subject of scrutiny now that he's left Cleveland again. It was the ultimate feel-good sports story: star player returning home to make up for past transgressions with the goal of winning a championship. If he made any mistake in its creation, it was in saying, "I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there." While this is still a possibility, the structure of that very sentence emitted a sense of closure—that James was not only returning to win a championship for Cleveland, but that he was there to stay.

If there's anything from that essay to fall back on, however, it is this line: "What's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."

That's a promise he kept.

But for all the talk of promises, both broken and kept, this time James is leaving Cleveland on much better terms. There was no televised decision and no essay. In fact, there were not any words from James at all. Instead, a mere representation-generated, one-sentence press release announced the transaction.

Gilbert issued a press release in the wake of the announcement, this time with a more grateful tone than the one disseminated in 2010. Rather than "cowardly betrayal", Gilbert spoke of having "nothing but appreciation and gratitude." Instead of jerseys being engulfed in flames, the next step is to hang James' No. 23 from the Quicken Loans Arena rafters.

In the meantime, as the uncertainty looms, fans will wonder how things cratered so quickly. Two summers ago, the streets of Cleveland were packed with over a million fans, ignoring with the mid-June temperatures and dehydration in order to celebrate their team. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

But here's how it happened: In 2010, LeBron James showed the world that top-end NBA athletes could choose their own paths. A year after burying the game-winning three-pointer in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Irving chose his—a path that would no longer tie him to the monstrous shadow of James.

While the two won an NBA championship, at some point between James' return in 2014 and Irving's departure in 2017, the former became "the enemy" (in a story written by The Athletic's Jason Lloyd) while the latter decided to seek happiness outside of Cleveland.

Losing out on George last summer set off a series of events that came to a head Sunday with James announcing his decision, but was this the first domino? James' unwillingness to commit beyond this past season had a butterfly effect, leading to dysfunction beyond the wildest imaginations of even the most creative NBA fans. But the dysfunction between Irving and James quietly bubbled for much longer.

Would executing the George deal have provided Irving with enough reason to stand pat? Would keeping Griff around have provided Irving with someone to use as a sounding board, someone to calm the waters before the waves grew too high?

Rather than wondering where everything went wrong, the more important question may be: Would tweaking any of these issues in the last 12 months have changed anything?

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